Haboob
JordiStock/istockphoto

'Atmospheric Rivers' and Other Truly Bizarre Weather Phenomena

View Slideshow
Haboob
JordiStock/istockphoto

Mostly Cloudy With a Chance of Fish Rain?

While we can all agree that boring weather is not necessarily a bad thing, the forecast doesn’t always oblige. Freaky weather isn’t only the stuff of dramatic headlines — it can be awe-inspiring, confusing, and in some cases, downright dangerous. Here’s a look at some of the weirdest conditions Mother Nature can dish out, including fish recently falling from the sky in Texas. 


Related: Wooly Worms, Persimmon Seeds, and Other Old-Timey Weather Indicators

Mass death of fish
papa1266/istockphoto
Flooded of muddy water. Overflow.
wsfurlan/istockphoto

Atmospheric Rivers

This headline-making phenomenon has been drenching parts of the West Coast lately — but what, exactly, is an atmospheric river? According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they occur when strong winds push tropical water vapor into a river-like band that can rush ashore and wreak havoc in the form of extreme rainfall and even mudslides. But the news isn’t always all bad: One recent atmospheric river brought much-needed drought and fire relief in northern California. 


Related: The Coldest and Warmest Cities in Every State

Trekking in Kukul on Chernogora
panaramka/istockphoto

Thundersnow

Thunder and lightning are usually a summer phenomenon, but in rare instances, they come bundled with the white stuff. Head to the Great Lakes for your best chance at witnessing this brain-buster: Cold air blowing across mild water can create enough instability for lightning, thunder, and snow to happen all at once, reports the Farmers’ Almanac. Understandably, people get a little excited when they witness thundersnow: Just watch the Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore flip out repeatedly in a thundersnow montage.


Related: The Best Cold Weather Gear on Amazon

Scary Stormy Background With Big Sea Wave Splash Against City Road
Media Raw Stock/istockphoto
Malta, Sliema - Storm with very high waves - defocused like painting
Kerrick/istockphoto

Medicanes

Nope, medicanes aren’t some sort of mobility device. They’re storms that form over the Mediterranean, drawing strength from the warm water. And while they’re not actually hurricanes (and rarely become as severe, according to AccuWeather) they can certainly look the part, swirling over the water and even forming an eye.


Related: Hurricane Essentials You Don’t Want to Be Without

Asphalt after rain
Renato Arap/istockphoto

Blood Rain

With its gruesome name, “blood rain” sounds like horror-movie fodder. Thankfully, the reason rain may occasionally appear to be red is a lot less apocalyptic. Aerosols from red dust can hitch a ride with low-pressure fronts, and the tiny particles can make raindrops look blood red (or orange, or even yellow, according to Farmers’ Almanac). The phenomenon is especially rare in the U.S.


For more outdoor newsplease sign up for our free newsletters.

Dust storm rolling over residential area
jeff1farmer/istockphoto

Haboobs

Blood rain may occur as part of a haboob. Ha-what? A haboob is a dust storm, and while you’re a lot more likely to witness one in Saharan Africa or the Middle East, they can crop up in the southwest U.S. — just like this one that hit Arizona in 2011. Haboobs occur as strong winds from thunderstorms gust down and out, picking up dust along the way. That can form a seriously impressive dust wall (not to mention seriously dangerous conditions, especially for drivers).

Derecho storm with shelf cloud approaching
mdesigner125/istockphoto

Derechos

Tornadoes may inspire more fear, but comparatively under-the-radar derechos can also tear through communities with awe-inspiring power — Iowa learned the hard way in August 2020, when an “apocalyptic” derecho caused $11 billion in damage. Sometimes called “inland hurricanes,” derechos can occur when a powerful line of thunderstorms kicks up straight-line winds over a wide area. The Iowa derecho brought 140 mph winds to Cedar Rapids and brought down more than 7 million trees, according to NPR.

Dust Devil on a farm
rhyman007/istockphoto

Gustnadoes

Granted, they might not have quite the cachet of the fictional “sharknado,” but gustnadoes are very real. They form when strong storm-related downdrafts spread out on the ground and then start to rotate upward, which can make them look like a miniature tornado. Accuweather says they can extend up to 300 feet and reach wind speeds of 80 mph.

Snow in Town
photokitchen/istockphoto

Snow Rollers

You may also know these whimsical formations as snow donuts or snow bales. When strong wind pushes snow across the ground, the snow can roll into a donut-like shape that leaves a trail as it chugs along. As National Geographic notes, this only happens under very specific conditions, including above-freezing temperatures, brisk wind speeds, and just the right dusting of snow on top of ice.

Dramatic stormy sky and lightning over Nha Trang Bay, Vietnam
efired/istockphoto

Ball Lightning

Of all the crazy things on this list, ball lightning is by far the most mysterious. Though there are eyewitness accounts of these glowing orbs dating back centuries, scientists still have little explanation for the storm-related phenomenon. Of course, there are plenty of theories, and some have wondered whether ball lightning is some sort of failed lightning bolt. Have you seen it yourself? Help scientists out by filing a report online.

Accumulation of ice pellets on cobblestone street natural disaster concept
naumoid/istockphoto

Graupel

Will you grapple with graupel this winter? Not quite snow, not quite sleet, and not quite freezing rain, graupel is made up of soft, hail-like ice pellets that form when water droplets cling to snowflakes. Farmers’ Almanac notes that if your sidewalk looks like someone spilled a bunch of those tiny, clingy Styrofoam pellets all over the place, you’ve probably got graupel.

Lenticular Cloud over Lassen Peak
MBRubin/istockphoto

Lenticular Clouds

There are all kinds of fantastical clouds that look downright otherworldly, but lenticular clouds are probably among the most eye-catching. The clouds have even been mistaken for UFOs, not just because of their disc-like shape, but because they seem to hover, unmoving. You’ll most often find them near mountain ranges, after moist air flows over the peaks.


moonbow
amygdala_imagery/istockphoto

Moonbows

Rainbows hog all the glory, but they have a lunar companion in moonbows. They’re especially rare, because, as the International Dark Sky Association notes, several conditions must be met for them to form: A full moon, a clear sky, very little light pollution, and water droplets, either in the form of mist or rain. Waterfalls can be an ideal place to spot them, including Yosemite Falls in California and Cumberland Falls in Kentucky, according to Atlas Obscura

Fire whirl tornado burns Arapahoe National Forest in East Troublesome Fire burning Colorado wildfire
milehightraveler/istockphoto

Fire Tornadoes

As if wildfires aren’t scary enough on their own, there are fire tornadoes? Sometimes referred to as fire whirls, fire devils, or firestorms, fire tornadoes are rare — and very freaky. Large ones can approximate the size of an actual tornado, and they form when enough extreme heat sends hot air rushing upward, where it combines with rotating winds. A fire tornado scorched 50,000 acres during a wildfire in California in 2020.